The State of Georgia has a longstanding record of neglecting its elections infrastructure and suppressing votes – particularly those of people of color. Many of these barriers to voting were halted by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”); however, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder eliminated several of the VRA’s key protections, Georgia once again began erecting discriminatory voting barriers.
In the 2018 general election, Georgia experienced historic levels of voter registration and turnout, particularly among voters of color; however, those record turnout levels were matched by increased reports of problems with voters’ registrations, absentee ballots, and polling places, among other things. Specifically, Georgia implemented the following policies and procedures that disenfranchised voters, particularly voters of color and low-income voters:
In the lead up to the 2018 election, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp adopted an extreme interpretation of the statute requiring a “match” between their information on a voter registration form and other government records, implementing a policy requiring the match to be “exact.” Under this policy, inconsequential typographical mismatches, often caused by technical limitations on computer systems or simple errors by government employees, were used to deny Georgians their right to vote. This practice resulted in the suspension of tens of thousands of new voter registrations – especially voters of color and newly naturalized citizens—before it was blocked in part by a federal court. CLC is involved in a second case, Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda v. Raffensberger challenging remaining portions of the exact match policy.
“Use It or Lose it”
In 1997, Georgia enacted legislation requiring Georgia citizens to be purged from the voter registration rolls based in large part on whether they decided to exercise their right to vote within certain timeframes. In 2017 alone, the Secretary of State used this statute to purge the voter rolls of nearly ten percent of Georgia’s registered voters. On Dec. 16, 2019, CLC and Fair Fight Action filed an emergency motion to halt the state’s plans to purge 120,561 Georgia voters form the rolls. These people are being removed solely because they have chosen not to participate in recent elections and have not returned two mailed notices asking for confirmation of their addresses.
Polling Place Closures and Relocations
Over the past few years, Georgia election officials closed or moved more than 300 polling places, many in neighborhoods with large populations of people of color. These changes create confusion for voters, and fewer polling places means that the remaining locations struggle to accommodate an influx of voters – especially when faced with the increased turnout of the 2018 election. Election officials in Georgia failed to supply sufficient, functioning voting machines and enough provisional ballots. The lack of resources and reduced number of polling places meant that voters had to endure longer lines with wait times of up to four hours – meaning that Georgians who couldn’t wait because of disability, health, or work or family obligations effectively lost the right to vote.
Provisional Ballot Issues
Georgia law requires election officials to provide a provisional ballot to any voter whose registration can’t be confirmed at the polling place, but many poll workers either did not understand that requirement or refused to comply. In other locations, particularly high-turnout precincts with large populations of voters of color, precincts ran out of provisional ballots, resulting in many voters losing the ability to vote entirely.
Absentee Ballot Issues
Thousands of Georgia voters who cast absentee ballots via mail also experienced significant obstacles in 2018. Some voters who applied for an absentee ballot never received one; others received their ballots too late to be able to cast them in time to be counted; and some had their applications or ballots illegally rejected. Elections officials also misinformed voters about whether absentee ballots had been accepted, preventing voters from having the chance to fix purported deficiencies in their ballots.
CLC has joined the legal team representing a coalition of civil rights groups and religious organizations as plaintiffs in this case, including Fair Fight Action, Inc., Care in Action, Inc., Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia, Inc., Baconton Missionary Baptist Church, Inc., Virginia-Highland Church, Inc., and The Sixth Episcopal District, Inc. The case challenges the deficiencies in Georgia’s electoral system described above, among others, under the First, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The lawsuit calls on the court to declare that the problems described in Georgia’s electoral system are unconstitutional and prevent the state from enforcing them in upcoming elections.
On May 30, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia denied the state’s motion to dismiss the coalition’s claims, and subsequently set a trial date for March 2020.